Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Tuning Slide 3.16- Avoiding the Extremes

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Happiness is not a matter of intensity
but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.
-Thomas Merton

We’re thinking about musician etiquette this month. Really, it boils down to being a good musician. Remember the four things we are to focus on - in this order…

• The music.
• Other musicians
• The audience
• Ourselves.

"Etiquette" is being a good colleague who displays “musicianship”. That brings all four into play on a regular basis. Last week I looked at how our actions and behaviors in both rehearsals and performances can get in the way of all these things. If we do not practice good musical etiquette in general:

The music will suffer. It won’t have the quality we want it to have.
Our colleagues will suffer. They won’t be able to count on us to be equal members of the group.
The audience will suffer. The performances won’t have the zip and fun that they want to hear.
• In the end we will suffer. We will get fed up with what is happening, especially if we blame it on others, and give up.

Having set that as the foundation of what we are aiming at, here are some of the things that we trumpet players do to others- and to ourselves.

Item #1- and at the top of our list of trumpet player sins.
Wanting to get to that great and wonderful Double High C.

It is the goal, the aim, the end of all being in the great trumpet room in the sky! For most of us it is summed up in one word:

Maynard! (For non-trumpet players, that would be Maynard Ferguson- the trumpet screamer to beat all trumpet screamers.)

To be a great trumpet player we all think we have to play high and loud. Like Maynard. Our hero!

Which of course means that if we can’t play the way-up-in-the-stratosphere register, there is something wrong with us as trumpet players. Many of us have fought that internal self-esteem killer most of our lives. Then we work- and overwork- our embouchure to reach those rare heights and we end up playing hurt, which only makes it worse. I have a hunch that is why, in the end for many of us, our true icon of trumpet playing is Miles Davis who personified for many years the good solid sound of a trumpet- and even played with a Harmon mute! It was almost like he was saying to the world:

I can play loud; I choose not to.

One of the great solos of his was the solo on the classic cut- “So What”. It doesn’t go anywhere near the stratosphere; it has a solid, almost reserved sound. Looking at a transcription of it you might say, “What’s so hard about that?”

Until you try to play it. Most of us could spend a lifetime practicing that and still not get it as solid as Davis does.

Herb Alpert is in the same field as Davis. Davis was once quoted as saying that all he had to hear was a couple notes and he could tell it was Alpert. Which brings me to the lesson for all of us in trumpet- and musical- etiquette. It was one of the items on the Trumpet Camp reflection list. One of our goals is to

Have the same “sound” for everything I play

Davis, Alpert, Chet Baker, Lee Morgan, and any of the greats always have the same “sound”, the same quality and tone no matter what they play. It is their sound. And they don’t have to scream to make it heard. But for my money, the greatest at doing that today - and for most of the past 60+ years - is Doc Severinsen. Here is one of his best examples of not screaming yet managing the complete range of the horn. He plays in that stratosphere as if it were just your every day middle of the staff music.

Item # 2: Equipment
Trumpet players always seem to be playing around with equipment, looking for the perfect piece that will make us into the next great star. Usually it starts with the mouthpiece itself. Get two trumpet players together and they will have at least six opinions on mouthpieces, the advantages and disadvantages, why they use- or don’t use this one or that one. Not that there aren’t differences and different ones allow you to do different things. Not to mention that each of us has a slightly different physiology which may mean that certain mouthpieces work differently.

But in general my research seems to show that most people start with a “beginner” mouthpiece that usually comes with the horn. Eventually most move to the good, old, reliable Bach 3C (or equivalent) and stay with that for the rest of their lives or careers, whichever comes first. Should we look at other mouthpieces? I guess. But the thought that comes to mind is “If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”

That doesn’t mean that a change won’t work well at times. I had that happen starting about a year and a half ago. I tried one of the new Bach Commercial mouthpieces at a workshop. It was a modified “v” cup. It seemed to allow me some freedom at the upper register and an extended endurance. The problem was all they had was a “5mv” and I was nervous about moving from the “3” size. So I didn’t get it. Earlier this year I had a chance to try the “3 MV”. I gave it quite a workout. It was as good, or better than the “5 MV” I had tried earlier. I bought it.

This new mouthpiece has allowed greater dynamic and sound range, higher register, and endurance. Was it a mouthpiece version of the “placebo” effect? I don’t think so- for two reasons. When I first played it for my wife she heard the difference in tone and dynamic immediately. Then, a few months later I accidentally pulled the “3C” out of the bag without noticing. Since the rim size was the same I didn’t feel the difference- until I realized my range and dynamic was off. At first I thought it was because I had been playing too much and was just tired. Then I realized it wasn’t the new mouthpiece. I switched and all the things that felt off went away.

But that alone isn’t what did it or allowed me to do it. What does it is another from the Trumpet Workshop list:

Learning to hear

By allowing me to hear a cleaner sound with greater dynamic and range I began to know what those notes should sound like. I like the sound of the “3MV” for me. I like hearing it and how it feels on my lip. It did not solve my “problems” and perhaps it gave me some new ones. (See next item.) But it did improve my ability to hear and that will always bring about an improvement in musicianship! The equipment we use is there to help us, it won’t do it for us.

The final item of trumpet sinful activities for this post:
Item #3: Balance.

Actually it’s the lack of balance that plagues us. It’s wanting to be a screamer the first time we pick up the horn. It’s wanting to be able to sound like Miles, or Maynard, or Doc without the years of practice. It’s wanting to be able to play loud for hours on end and getting pissed when we get tired- or worse- hurt. It’s wanting the equipment to save us or take us someplace we are still unable to go. Sure, if your valves don’t work smoothly you may never be able to play some of those amazing arpeggios. But a new horn may not be the problem- your present horn may be too dirty, your valves clogged, springs not working right.

Take the time to take care of the equipment and it will probably do what you need it to do. Sure, if you move into a new level of musicianship and career building you may need to upgrade the horn. But probably not. You are the musician that produces the sound. The horn or the valves or whatever doesn’t do it for you. Learn to balance your sound and work.

From our workshop list, this brings up:

Being efficient in playing

Efficiency is balance. If you strain and push constantly, you are not in balance and something will happen to your playing. If you want everything to happen yesterday, it won’t come tomorrow. Balance is taking care of your instrument so it doesn’t get so gunked up that its sound is compromised. Ignoring the basics of say the Arban’s first couple sections will put us out of balance with the whole range of what we want to do. Again, back to the video from Doc (above) the ability to play equally across the whole range of the horn is the result of balance.

Next week I’ll talk about personal balance and self care as it is part of our musicianship. That will get us into the greater aspects of what we can learn from being a “compleat musician”.

Until then, look for the balance, don’t only push to the extremes, but build the solid foundation and middle in order to support the greater sounds and range. Be efficient in order to be effective. Finally, nothing can do it for you.

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